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The future of air combat

The F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II will form the core of America’s future fleet of fighter aircraft for air combat.

The F-22 Raptor is America’s premier air dominance fighter. 187 F-22 aircraft will replace 254 F-15C/D Eagle ($30M) eventually, although 178 F-15s will remain in service beyond 2025. In 2012, the F-22 participated in the Red Flag Alaska training exercise, where the less expensive, more agile Eurofighter Typhoon proved to be equally matched in dogfighting. [http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/07/f-22-fighter-loses-79-billion-advantage-in-dogfights-report/] The Raptor costs approximately $150M to manufacture per aircraft, while the Eurofighter costs €90M ($115M). In its air dominance role, the F-22 can carry six AIM-120 AMRAAM and 480 rounds of ammunition for its M61A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon.

To complement the F-22, the F-35 Lightning II will replace the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and AV-8B. At over $150M per aircraft, approximately 1,200 F-35 fighters will replace thousands of F-16 Fighting Falcon ($18.8M), 345 A-10 Thunderbolt II ($12M), 647 F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet ($57M), and 175 AV-8B Harrier II ($30M).

Apparently, America’s strategy is to concentrate air power in fewer, more advanced, very costly aircraft. At $150M each, built in such low numbers, losses would be devastating. The weakness in this strategy lies in the numbers.

In such limited numbers, the F-22 will be vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a much larger opposing force, even if every one of its six AMRAAMs finds its mark. Eventually, its weapons or its fuel will be exhausted, or its supporting tankers will be destroyed in a full scale conflict with an adversary whose strategy is based on large numbers of modern, inexpensive aircraft.

It has long been understood that human pilots cannot tolerate the most extreme forces that fighters are capable of experiencing. However, we must rely on humans for the good judgment needed to make critical decisions based on principles, values, and experience.

The solution is to deploy large numbers of inexpensive unmanned combat fighters that operate in close coordination with a human piloted fighter and his wingman. Let’s call these drones swarmers in reference to the small, agile, swarming fighters from the classic video game Defender. Swarmers should operate largely autonomously toward some overall set of goals that govern the squadron. The human pilots would set these goals in the course of the mission, such as which enemy aircraft to engage.

Each swarmer would rely entirely on its programming for maneuvering and tactics. The swarmers decide collectively amongst each other how to work as a team to accomplish their immediate goals. If an enemy air-to-air missile is inbound, the immediate priority is to protect the human piloted aircraft, sacrificing a swarmer if necessary. Offensively, some swarmers can serve as bait, maneuvering to lure the enemy into a position favorable to being targeted by its peers.

This approach puts inexpensive assets into the riskiest situations, while keeping human pilots and costly assets protected. Swarmers can carry missiles, ammunition, flares, and chaff in large numbers—-mutually reinforcing through computerized coordination. This enables a small fleet of advanced fighters with highly trained pilots to increase its lethality while also greatly improving survivability.